America’s Cup: Fun and Games

It seems to be in the nature of America’s Cup competition that, every now and then, the race for the world’s oldest active sporting trophy becomes nothing less than a farce. The most recent competition, held this last February, was another instance.

The match amounted to three racing days, two races, and two and a half years of legal wrangling. In addition, there was no international competition for the right to challenge, and the race (traditionally a monohull competition) was between two ridiculously large and expensive multihulls.

Despite this, the 2010 challenge was not the most farcical. That “honor” is still held by the 1988 mismatch between a huge New Zealand monohull and Dennis Conner’s 60-foot American catamaran. So ridiculous was the race that Conner held back the speed of the multihull to help the American position in the court case that he knew would follow.

These one against one matches are called “Deed of Gift” matches. More appropriate, I think, would be to call them “Court of Law” matches.

Fortunately, the 2010 campaign was won by the right team, BMW Oracle (racing as USA 17). Larry Ellison of Oracle wants to return the cup to the traditional format of competition between potential challengers to determine the eventual challenging boat and competition between boats from the defending country (currently USA) to determine the defending yacht.

I hope Ellison also returns to monohull competition. We already have a multihull regatta, modeled on America’s Cup, the Little America’s Cup. It was here in the Little America’s Cup that the wing type sail that BMW Oracle sported was first used in competition.

America’s Cup racing is traditionally between monohulls. America, the schooner that started it all, was an innovative monohull design in 1851. The best competition has always been between monohulls of similar design, with room in the rules to allow for innovation.

The heyday of America’s Cup was when the yachts were of the 12-metre class. These were less expensive than earlier yachts and also less than the class that replaced it, the International America’s Cup Class. If Ellison (as he said) wants to get back to a less expensive format with more countries competing, it should be to something similar, though a different class from standard yacht racing classes to provide for development. The 12-metre rule allowed for considerable flexibility in design, through limiting trade-offs, with a lot for room for innovation. (The yachts were not twelve meters in length; competing plus and minus measurements had to total twelve meters.)

It was in a 12-metre yacht in 1983 that Australia II broke the New York Yacht Club’s 132-year-old stranglehold on the cup. Contributing to the win was an innovative keel design on Australia II. Too much has been made of the winged keel. Australia II was the superior yacht and would have most likely won anyway, though they were up against a formidable opponent in Dennis Conner. The kind of innovation that the winged keel represents would not have been accepted under the rules of standard yacht classes. Indeed, the winged keel was promptly banned from other classes.

The move to 12-metre racing turned out to be a very significant move. It eventually opened up the competition for the trophy. It enabled America’s Cup to spread to other countries and potentially become a truly international regatta of the highest order. Now it has a chance to stay that way—as long as we do not end up with any more “Deed of Gift” or “Court of Law” races.